Lisa Norton


Thank you for your DDP article, 'A ‘way of being’ in design; Zen and the art of being a human-centered practitioner'. I enjoyed your paper very much and although we may differ in certain ways, we seem to be drawing on many of the same sources such as Zen, embodiment, and also direct sensing as evidenced in the science of Goethe for some new answers.

I feel that the polarized debates and issues around progressive design are symptomatic

of the flattening and over-simplifying tendencies of global media today. I am not a designer but a design educator at SAIC in Chicago, and a ‘prescriptive design crank’. My crankiness stems from my desire to see the fields of design adopt at least a minimum ethical ‘floor’. Of course these are complicated issues and I agree with your implication that a universal moral code for design and designing could never make sense. Axiomatic injunctions will have no force with Moderns, and snarky counter-quips issued from relativistic places ultimately reflect poorly on our profession overall.

Although many professionals feel that design and designers are overburdened with expectations that are beyond our purview, on the contrary I feel that design and designing suffer from the sorts of diminished expectations that come from having been fully instrumentalized in society. With depth of impact and efficacy ought not also come responsibility? Mutual relatedness is a condition of human interdependency whether we have the capacity to recognize it or not. I see the ethical void in the design professions as being yet another symptom of our monological, reductive approaches to partitioning the world. So, in distinction to your point, I do not think the role and responsibility of the designer (ethical, instrumental, ideological) can be emphasized enough, nor ought it be any less than 100% for each individual design actor. I do acknowledge your point that such demands on designers can stir feelings of guilt, anger and outrage, but I see such reactions as indicators of the much more serious and generalized problem of narcissism and short-term, individual-ego-driven attitudes and norms.

Indeed as you point out, our techno-centric ways tend to bind us to preferences for flatness, compartmentalization and packetization. Human-centered design or empathic design aspirations are quickly shallowed out, tweeted, and ‘liked’ in facile ‘how-to’ fashion. We seem to have arrived at the same conclusion; that the tremendous structuring challenge of unsustainability can only be met by the equally immersive and fully engaged presence of human-being. Status quo commercial design practice, not irrelevant but profoundly marginal, is no match for the embedded logics of unsustainability. We seem to agree also that 'sustainable design' in order to have any real meaning, will ultimately be more about challenges to our structures of consciousness than anything else.

Unmotivated by socio-cultural critiques and postures of resistance, I searched for alternate routes into the dilemmas we face around design and designing. I ended up living in China for a while, and was exposed to Taoist, Buddhist and Zen philosophies. I study many different paths ‘beyond mind’. I had the opportunity last year to participate in a two-day faculty development workshop with Thomas Kasulis and Peter Hershock from the University of Hawai’i. Thomas spoke to his theories of Western culture as integrity-oriented and Asian cultures broadly as intimacy-oriented. I find his work fascinating and it certainly connects nicely with a lot of what you wrote. He echoed perennial philosophy in his description of human-being as process, as becoming. I strongly agree with your statement that ‘this practice of practicing design in continuous reflection’ is a way of being as a process of evolution.

I have been following the work of a number of groups that are actively exploring collective iterative creation, MIT researcher Peter Senge’s Theory U and Social Presencing Theater’s Arawana Hayashi, for example. This past week I had the pleasure of participating in the live cast presented by Senge’s colleague Otto Scharmer at the Global Presencing Forum in Berlin. The Presencing Institute is actively researching collective creativity arising from the shared We-space. I'm also involved with some Integral project groups relating the AQAL theory of Ken Wilber to embodiment studies more broadly. Integral Studies, as you may be aware, places significant emphasis on the We-space, its cultivation and extension by means of individual and collective enactment.

And we can’t speak of I-We-Thou without being reminded of the inscriptive force of individualism on the designed world. The ‘free’ individual is now part of the furniture, an unfortunate unintended consequence of Modernity dialled up by post-modernity’s me generation. I am loath to justify any position, ethical or otherwise, strictly on the basis of autonomy. I think that in our society today we regard empathy and emotions with suspicion of ulterior motives because we are cut off from the full depth and breadth of our authentic human capacities.

Although I do appreciate the aims of conventional human-centered design and I don't share your overall critique of human-centered design as a methodology, I agree with your introduction of a re-enlivened notion of human-centered design as ‘a lived, embodied experience in the in-between-ness of people and objects in the world’. Although active modes and behaviours lend better to being grasped, quantified, systematized, I do not agree that human-centered design has been defined solely as a conscious, analytical activity. I think that the best designers regardless of methodology have always developed the capacity to move from logical/analytical to sensing/being modes in designing. Today, more and more designers are working from embodied consciousness. What's new is that we see a ‘there’ there, and we attempt to put language and theory to work in analyzing this realm of reflective/tacit knowing, doing, and being.

I loved what you wrote about Schon on improvisation. It provides a good example of how the lifeworld is always already 'ontologically', recursively, designing us. On the topic of reflecting, as opposed to reflecting ON, experience, I agree that the faculties of experience and cognition and their respective truth claims are irreducibly distinct. Within this understanding we see the both/and supplant the either/or. Westerners, for example, are interdependent as well as independent within gestalts differing from Non-Westerners, but our sense-making ontologically mirrors, anticipates and potentiates conditions in our culturally particular and distinctive ways.


Lisa Norton teaches at  the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Department of Architecture, Interior Design and Designed Objects.

A longer version of this article, and a forthcoming reply from Yoko Akama can be found at Design Philosophy Politics